Doug Maloney

ONE WORD THAT IS extolled everywhere in the world is "sushi" - especially in Marin.

Sushi is a healthful, interesting and delectable concoction of infinite variety. It is acclaimed as a symbol of Marin's upscale food absorption. Declare that your favorite sushi bar is the best in Marin at any local gathering and you will trigger a passionate argument.

Trevor Carson's delicious book, "The Zen of Fish," tells "The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket."

Sushi is a fine example of the Japanese penchant to make simple things perfectly.

To some, it is nothing more than a piece of raw fish on a gob of sour rice. But to Japanese and myriad sushi connoisseurs, the thickness of the fish, the density and moistness of the rice, the manner in which the sushi is assembled and the presentation are essential steps that must be performed with precision and skill. Sushi master chefs employ nine separate hand motions to achieve perfection, albeit at lightning speed. Less than five seconds is the norm.

Sushi has become serious business. The most expensive restaurant in the United States is Masa's Sushi Bar, in the Time-Warner building in New York City. Lunch or dinner will set you back at least $350 per person plus tax and tip. Make your reservations weeks ahead. The spectacular globalization of the multi-billion dollar sushi industry, from Nebraska to Mumbai, is thoroughly described in, "The Sushi Economy," by Sasha Issenberg.

Sushi had humble beginnings.


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In the first century A.D., rice farmers in the Mekong Delta used jars filled with cooked rice to preserve freshwater fish that were unavailable during dry spells. The rice fermented as the fish aged. Initially the rice was discarded, but people found it had a pleasant tartness if eaten after a month in the jar.

Rice vinegar was discovered as a by-product of sake production. Around 1600, a doctor added the appetizing vinegar to a shogun's rice. This allowed the savory rice and fish to be eaten almost immediately. Sushi, square slices of vinegar-soaked rice and fish compressed in a box by stone weights, became a popular self-contained meal. Early in the 19th century, an unheralded Edo mastermind hand-formed fresh fish and vinegared rice together to create "Nigiri-zushi." Thousands of pieces now are consumed regularly in Marin, millions around the world.

Trevor Carson's book uses a dramatic framework to elucidate the wonders of sushi. He follows a class at the California Sushi Academy, mingling the personalities and aspirations of the pupils with intriguing sushi lore. We learn as he explains shell configuration, muscular structure and taste factors for every imaginable creature in scientific detail.

He acknowledges a distinction between Japanese and American sushi bars that I relish. In Japan, many sushi chefs are practically stand-up performers. They laugh, joke, make good-natured fun of gaijin and flirt. It's a delightful contrast to Marin's yuppie food reverence.

The distressing note is sushi is being devoured by its own success. There are 9,000 sushi bars or restaurants in the United States. More are on the way. All-you-can-eat sushi bars, inferior pre-packaged ingredients, even sushi-making robots are all proliferating to the detriment of quality establishments. Fish populations have been decimated.

Bluefin tuna, a mainstay of sushi, is rapidly disappearing from the seas. Loads of flash-frozen tuna, flown from the Atlantic, proliferate in the famed Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which houses 1,600 vendors. The costly tuna resemble huge mounds of snow and ice on the floor of the market. The fishmongers assail the frozen fish with Samurai-type swords. It is an enthralling spectacle. The giant fish will be reduced to countless slim slices, two fingers wide and four fingers long.,

But in Marin, we will always have California Rolls - a delicacy you can't get in Japan.

Doug Maloney is a San Rafael attorney who served more than three decades as Marin's county counsel. He contributes regularly to Marin Voice.